Obama's farewell speech warns of fundamental challenges to U.S. democracy

For his supporters, a pep talk and thanks

WASHINGTON, D.C. - The president began his farewell oration by saying “tonight it is my turn to say thanks.” His deeper mission of the address, it became clear, was to minister to his flock and inspire them at a tough moment to hold onto their ideals and passion and keep fighting the good fight. 

He efficiently and proudly recited accomplishments most important to him, but there was no heavy spin to it, no last minute polishing of the legacy.  He paid standard homage to the great feat of passing power peacefully.  He offered President-elect Donald Trump no words of praise or support. Neither did he take any swings at him, which the assembled crowd craved.

Barack Obama, the 44th president and the first African-American to reach the White House, abandoned the White House in favor of his hometown of Chicago to deliver his formal farewell. It was a modest, symbolic break with tradition at a time when his successor flamboyantly flaunts established protocols daily.

Obama paid homage to the first farewell address, written, not spoken, in 1796.

Washington’s speech is one of the most prescient and enduringly germane documents we have. That is why it is read in the Senate every year on Washington’s Birthday. The speech issued a grave warning about the dangers of political parties and the civic attitudes they foster. In their “extremity, parties threaten to supplant democracy with despotism,” he warned; less dire but inevitably, “the common and continual mischiefs of the spirit of party are sufficient to make it the interest and duty of a wise people to discourage and restrain it.”

Politicians ignored Washington’s counsel for centuries. Obama’s administration was plagued by the poisons of “factions,” as Washington called parties, as much as any predecessor.  And Obama picked up the conversation Washington began so long ago.

“That’s what I want to focus on tonight — the state of our democracy,” he said.

“Understand, democracy does not require uniformity,” he said.  “Our founders quarreled and compromised, and expected us to do the same. But they knew that democracy does require a basic sense of solidarity — the idea that for all our outward differences, we are all in this together; that we rise or fall as one.”

And then the warning.

“There have been moments throughout our history that threatened to rupture that solidarity,” Obama said, calmly. “The beginning of this century has been one of those times …”

“And how we meet these challenges to our democracy will determine our ability to educate our kids, and create good jobs, and protect our homeland.” 

“In other words,” he said, “It will determine our future.” Today’s challenge to solidarity is the “retreat into our own bubbles, whether in our neighborhoods or college campuses or places of worship or our social media feeds, surrounded by people who look like us and share the same political outlook and never challenge our assumptions.”

Dwight Eisenhower might have called this the danger of a new Information-Media Complex.

He spoke of the enduring tragedy of race. “After my election, there was talk of a post-racial America,” he said. “Such a vision, however well-intended, was never realistic.  For race remains a potent and often divisive force in our society.”

Before the finale came the pep talk for the troops. “It falls to each of us to be those anxious, jealous guardians of our democracy; to embrace the joyous task we’ve been given to continually try to improve this great nation of ours,” Obama said. “Because for all our outward differences, we all share the same proud title: Citizen.”

No-drama Obama teared up when thanking his wife, Michelle, and his family.  Many in the audience were weeping hard.

The election of Obama was “a moment of hope and pride for our whole nation,” George W. Bush said in his 2009 farewell address. The vast majority of Americans believed the same that day. 

Eight years later, in this stranger political time, a bitter chasm divides Americans’ views of the outgoing president. Polling shows, however, that a good number of people who disapprove of the job he did, nonetheless respect the history he made.

It seems that for every voter rejoicing at Obama’s exit, there’s another hoping he stays in the arena as a combatant, not a watcher. And for every citizen buoyed by Trump’s iconoclastic promise, there’s another snarled in fear and anger.

Obama leaves and Trump arrives: No one is calling this “a moment of hope and pride for our whole nation,” a sad but obvious state of affairs. 

Tonight, Barack Obama got his last words in as the 44th president, his own ending to a remarkable chapter in the American story.

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